Women’s Rights In Islam (Part 1)

Written by: Dr. Kazem S. M. Mesbah Moosavi

Published on: September 23rd, 2019

Part 2 here

This is the third segment of the Youtube interview “Women’s Rights in Islam“, conducted by Sajid Sajidi with Shia scholar and thinker, Dr. Kazem Mesbah Moosavi, the founder and president of Islamic Iranian Centre of Imam Ali. Dr. Mesbah Moosavi is a graduate-researcher from Elmiyeh Seminary in Qom, Iran and received his PhD from McGill University. He has taught for many years as the professor of Islamic studies, theology and philosophy at Elmiyeh seminary, as well as in a number of universities, including McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He has authored many published and unpublished articles in psychology, philosophy, and Islamic studies. There are hundreds of videos of his lectures available for researchers.

This interview has been conducted by Sajid Sajidi in response to a number of Youtube videos which portray women in Islam in a negative light.  The videos online which try to explain women’s rights in Islam, are in fact based on Salafi-Wahhabi doctrine which is in no way representative of the true Islam. This interview attempts to shed light upon women’s rights from an Islamic perspective.  It will briefly examine women’s rights in seven cases: (1) the right of ownership, (2) the right of inheritance, (3) the right of marriage, (4), the rights of unpaid work at home, (5) the right of divorce,  (6) the right of education, and (7) the right to vote. This article will also discuss a general discrimination made against women in which, up to the modern day era, were not recognized as persons in both Western and Eastern societies—contrary to Islam, which always considered females as persons.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that not all practices being followed by Muslims around the globe are necessarily in line with the teachings of Islam. Let’s discuss this issue with Dr. Mesbah Moosavi and review his interpretation on this matter.

Yes, I agree with you that the practices that are being followed by Muslim societies are not reflective of the authentic teachings of Islam. A glance at the status of women in Saudi Arabia would demonstrate my point. Women are deprived of their most basic rights, including the very right to vote or drive a car. This illustrates that sometimes religion is replaced with backward cultures and customs. What one witnesses in Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with Islam, rather, it reflects the Arabian and tribal traditions instead which should not lead to so many criticisms against the Islamic view of women. Such traditions are the main reasons for Islam being accused as a religion whose women are subjugated and denied of their most basic rights.


Let’s examine some of the women’s rights in Islam.  What is the Islam’s perspective on the ownership of property by women? Are women entitled to own personal, real, or intellectual properties?

From inception, Islam explicitly declared that women have the right to own or disown properties. When Islam suggests that a man at the time of marriage has to give a dowry to the woman, it means that woman has the right to keep this gift for herself or spend it as she wishes. Some people would be surprised to know that even in the western world, mainly in Europe, up until the 1840s, the right of ownership of property by women was not given. According to English Common Laws, which was developed since the 10th century, “All the property of a woman, at the time of marriage, became her husband’s property.” So if a woman owned something before marriage, according to the English Common Law, all her property would be possessed by her husband after their marriage.

According to my research, a millennium, almost one thousand years after Islam had already acknowledged the rights of women to own property, in the late 19th century, European societies suggested that women has to have the right of ownership. So in the late 19th century in the United States and the British parliament, they began to pass laws that women should have the right to own or disown property. The Married Women’s Property Act 1882 (45 & 46 Vict. c.75) was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that significantly altered English law regarding the property rights of married women, which besides other matters allowed married women to own and control property in their own right.

According to Claire Jones, “these acts were a milestone along women’s route to equality. The legal position of married women for most of the nineteenth century was little short of that of a slave. (This was the way in which philosopher John Stuart Mill described a married woman’s lot in his 1869 book The Subjection of Women.) As soon as a woman married she disappeared as far as the law was concerned; now she was no longer a person in her own right but was merely an extension of her husband, unable to own property or even her own person (divorce was impossible for all but the most privileged women as it necessitated a special act of Parliament). A woman became essentially a chattel of her husband; her wealth and possessions were now all his.” (Her Storia Magazine, July 2012) This is very shocking. Some people accuse Islam of stripping women of their basic rights. On the contrary, Islam had already acknowledged their rights for ownership 1000 years prior to Europe.  


What about inheritance in Islam?

It is mentioned in the Quran that when a man passes away, the family, namely the daughter(s), son(s) and the wife, would inherit from the deceased. Islam clearly outlines the rights of inheritance pertaining to both men and women. In the holy Quran chapter 4, verses 11 and 12 describe various scenarios and explicitly clarify how to divide the wealth among the numerous inheritors for both genders.


How is it that a woman is entitled to only half of what a man gets from inheritance? This means that men are going to be in a better financial situation!

Yes, I agree with you that in some cases women get half of what men get from inheritance, however, from an Islamic  perspective, I do not agree with your conclusion that men are financially better off. Rather, it is the reverse. Women in Islam receive more than what a man gets throughout their day-to-day life. One cannot however understand this formula unless they get to comprehend the entire Islamic financial system.  Allow me to briefly explain how the Islamic financial system works. From an Islamic perspective, man is in charge of all living expenses. It is his obligation to provide an acceptable accommodation for his wife. He has to pay for the food, clothing, as well as all other necessities of life. He has to pay for his children’s expenses, including their education.

This is a general obligation for men, regardless of the woman’s financial situation. There is no exception, even if the woman is a millionaire. Let us now examine inheritance in a case where someone dies and leaves behind a married son and daughter. Whatever the daughter gets from inheritance she can keep it solely for herself, but the son cannot keep it for himself alone; he has to share it with his wife and children.  As a result of this ecosystem, women in Islamic societies would be better off.  


As you mentioned, it took a long time—12 centuries, for women in the western world to begin gaining their basic rights already given to Muslim women back in the 7th century. I am curious as to how women were being treated before Islam was revealed in the 7th century. Would you please shed some light on the state of women before Islam was revealed? Was a woman considered a person?

When Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him; PBUH) was appointed to call people towards Islam and monotheism, Arabs had a stigma against female infants. The Quran mentions that when a man would receive the news of his wife giving birth to a female child, his face would get dark from shame and would feel humiliated. The holy Quran discusses the crime of people burying their female infants alive. There are many cases in history regarding Arabs and various other nations burying their infant daughters alive. In the Quran, surah 81, verses 8 and 9 says, “When the female infant, buried alive, is questioned, for what crime she was killed?” So during those times, women were not considered as persons according to old Arabic customs and thus, did not have equal respect and dignity within the society.

This was not occurring only in the Arabian Peninsula. Even in Europe in the 7th century (during which Islam was revealed), there were discussions in churches, about whether women even had a soul! The churches would discuss whether women had satanic souls or animal souls. In European societies, women were not considered as full human beings. When I came to Canada some 30 years ago, the $50 Canadian bill was written with a statement which read, “Woman is a person.” It was surprising for me. What did it mean? It makes sense once we take into consideration the fact that just couple of centuries ago, people in the West denied women to be seen as persons. One of the most important milestone for women’s rights was defining “persons” under the British North America Act.

According to the Canadian Government’s official website, in 1928, people…petitioned the government to ask the Supreme Court of Canada to decide whether ‘persons’ in the Act included women. The Supreme Court decided that it did not, for the following reasons:

• The British North America Act in 1928 had to maintain the meaning “persons” would have been given by the courts when it was passed in 1867.

• According to common law, women could not hold political office.

• If the British Parliament had intended for women to be included as “qualified persons” under section 24 of the Act, it would have said so.

However, an appeal to the Privy Council was launched. In 1929, the Council decided the word “person” in itself was not clear, and would be better understood if the British North America Act was given a wider interpretation. Therefore, if the law was to exclude women specifically, it should have been clearly stated in the Act. From this point on, women were considered “persons” under the law.

(Taken from A brief history of women’s rights in Canada.)

To summarize, at some point in time, both in the East and the West, women were not considered as “persons”. It was a general discrimination occurring against women all around the globe. Such was the status of women during Jahiliyyah, which is defined as the period before Islam.  


How did Islam change the negative perspective of Jahiliyyah held against women?

Islam had a very strong reaction to the issues of female infanticide or humiliation of women. Quran declared if someone kills a person (be it a man or woman), he or she will be directed to hell forever. With such kind of verses, Islam warns against the murdering of innocent people. Therefore, no one has right to kill anyone, regardless of gender.

On the other hand, the Quranic verses also attempt to educate people that there is no difference between men and women with regard to being human. Yes, there are some undeniable biological differences between men and women, but the value of a woman as a human being is equal to that of a man. This is shown in various verses of the Quran.

For instance, chapter 18 verse 50, God says, “We have honored the children of Adam…”. It does not mention gender. In chapter 3, verse 195, God says, “Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, be male or female.” Or in chapter 49, verse 13, God declares, “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes…”. In another verse, it is mentioned that “He created mates for you, from yourself”. To conclude, in Islam, men and women are created as equals, and are given equal value.

I would like to emphasize that according to the Quran and Islam, a woman is not created from the rib of a man, women are not created for men made specifically to serve them. On the contrary, the Bible humiliates women by saying, “Women have been created to serve men,” (Corinthians Chapter 11, Verse 9). In the story of Adam and Eve, Quran mentions that both of them made a mistake of eating the forbidden fruit. In the Bible, the blame is placed upon the woman only, where it says that the woman tempted Adam to a commit sin. In Genesis chapter 3, verse 16, it says that because woman made Adam to commit a sin, God punishes women with the pain of childbearing. Furthermore, God made men the master of women. But we do not have such a concept in the Quran. The holy Quran holds both Adam and Eve equally accountable for disobeying God. As a matter of fact, in the Quran, chapter 20 verse 24, God blames Adam only, “…thus did Adam disobey his lord …”.  


Some say that the Qur’an addresses men only, linguistically speaking only to them. Is that true?

No, it is not true. The Quran is revealed in Arabic. According to the Arabic language, the general correspondence used is masculine pronouns. For example, in chapter 49, verse 13—which I had just mentioned—God refers to both men and women, saying “We have created you male and female…”. The word “you” comes in a masculine form. Although it is speaking to both males and females, it still uses the masculine pronoun. It is merely a linguistic feature of the Arabic language.  


You gave us a Quranic perspective of women, but what about Hadiths (sayings of Prophet Mohammad or Imams (peace be upon them)?

We have many Hadiths in which Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) tried to change the perception of men towards women and female children. Indeed, we have a very well-known Hadith that Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) had said, “Blessed is the one whose first baby is a female.” We have many other similar Hadiths.

You know the expression, “ladies first,” Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) actually made a similar reference fourteen centuries ago. He said, “When one presents gifts to his or her children, that person should gift their daughters first, and then their sons.” In another Hadith Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) said that Angel Gabriel came to me and said so much about women in such a way that I thought that man is forbidden to even say “woe” to his wife. There are numerous other Hadiths which uplift and elevate the status of women, emphasizing upon the equality of men and women before God. However, we are unable to mention all of them in such short time.  


Continued here in Part 2…  

©2020. Hoda Magazine. All rights reserved

Privacy / Terms / Disclaimer